Hampshire football player Trevone Woods is thriving in a communication-reliant sport though he can barely hear a word.
Mostly deaf since birth, the 16-year-old Aurora resident scored his first varsity touchdown in the fourth quarter of last Friday's 54-14 victory over Burlington Central, a moment that deepened his comfort level at his new school.
"I feel wonderful," Woods said through sign language interpreter Jodi Burlison after Tuesday's practice. "This is the right team for me. I have goals to be a better player. I have so many goals. I feel really good being on this team."
A reserve running back and defensive back who wears a cochlear implant, Woods loves football. He said he'd like to play in college someday, maybe even the NFL. "I like to play physical," he signed. "I like to hit people. It's a lot of fun."
The sturdily built, 5-foot-11, 183-pounder is allowed to think big after transferring to Hampshire for his junior year of high school, a critical step in his education.
Since third grade, Woods had been enrolled at the Illinois School for the Deaf in downstate Jacksonville, where he also played football the past three years. He lived in the dormitories during the school year and returned home each summer.
Woods said his mother, Tammy Smith, felt it was time for a change in educational environments. She opted to send him to Hampshire in Community Unit District 300, which is in the second year of a three-year cooperative agreement with the Northwestern Illinois Association (NIA), a not-for-profit organization whose "purpose for existing is to provide special education services across 10 counties in the northern Illinois region," NIA regional director Jon Malone said.
According to Hampshire principal Brett Bending, approximately 25 hearing-impaired students are part of the 1,607-student population at his high school, where the NIA rents two classrooms for specialized instruction. Otherwise, hearing-impaired students attend mainstream classes, accompanied by an interpreter hired by the NIA and paid for by participating school districts.
Each weekday Woods makes the hourlong commute from Aurora to Hampshire in a NIA-furnished bus. He takes two specialized classes for the hearing-impaired as determined by his instructors: World History and English. The rest of his schedule is mainstream with an interpreter.
The NIA also supplies sign language interpreters for extracurricular activities, including football. The main interpreter assigned to Hampshire football is Laurie Eder. She attends games and most practices. Burlison fills in on Tuesdays. Woods is adept at reading lips, but both interpreters make sure he doesn't miss a thing by translating what Hampshire coach Mike Brasile and his assistant coaches say.
Of course, practice is one thing. Communicating within the sometimes chaotic sideline environment of a Friday night football game can be difficult for those with all five senses. Thus, not everything goes perfectly. For example, at one point last Friday night, Brasile repeatedly called to Woods' teammates to get his attention in the huddle so the interpreter could relay an individual blocking assignment.
In-game communication "is the biggest adjustment," Brasile said of coaching a deaf player for the first time. "It presents a problem for us coaches, but we try to problem solve and find solutions for that so he can be a part of all aspects of our game, whether it's the kicking game, offense or defense. It gets us to think outside the box a little bit."
Woods reads lips but trying to do so in the heat of battle can be tricky, too, particularly given the barriers of mouthpieces and face masks.
"I have to try my best to focus on their lips," he signed. "I try to catch what they say. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes it's a little bit difficult."
When inserted on offense, Woods looks to the sideline at the same time as the quarterback to see what play is being called via the familiar hand signals coaches have always used to send in plays.
Then the quarterback, mouthpiece out, repeats the play in the huddle and gives Woods any specialized instructions he might need.
Nothing was lost in translation last Friday when Woods and the second-team offense entered the game late in the third quarter. Playing alongside junior quarterback Ben Corcelles, the backup to all-conference starter Jake Vincent, he rushed 8 times for a team-high 72 yards. His highlight was a 25-yard touchdown run, his first for the Whip-Purs (2-0).
Many Hampshire fans shook both hands in the air after Woods crossed the goal line, a gesture that means applause in sign language.
"Seeing Trevone score that touchdown was one of the coolest things," Bending said. "The place went nuts. To see him interacting like any other student -- and he is but he has certain difficulties and obstacles to overcome -- those things make it even more special."
Bending makes a good point. Football is a tough enough sport to play without an additional physical challenge like Woods has to overcome. The fact he hasn't let his situation stop him from succeeding at varsity football isn't lost on his coaches or a teammate like Corcelles. Along with junior lineman Dom Pierson, he bonded with Woods when the trio roomed together without an interpreter for two nights during summer camp at Aurora University.
"It gives you another perspective thinking about how hard it is for him having to overcome being deaf," said Corcelles. "It makes you appreciate all your abilities 100 percent."
"It's really been an eye-opening experience for me and for our entire team," Brasile said. "We take for granted our ability to hear and some of our senses. Seeing Trevone succeed in the game of football and succeed on our team despite that lack of communication really speaks volumes of him as a person but also speaks volumes to our team as well."
The transition to a new school has been almost seamless for Woods, who, according to his coach, sent the following text message to his teammates after summer camp in Aurora ended: "Hey, I love all of you guys and we're a family."
Asked how he'd like to see this season eventually conclude for himself and his newfound Hampshire football family, Woods flipped the question, saying he'd prefer it never end.
"I just want it to continue," he signed.